Funding for the Northern Lights Express passenger rail line ultimately landed in a proposed off-year bonding bill. The bill was never taken up in a special session which yielded a bipartisan state budget. None of the budget’s fine print was aimed at Northern Lights Express.
MnDOT estimates passenger fares would cover less than half of the estimated $17.5 million annual operating cost of NLX, leaving Minnesota taxpayers to pay millions of dollars to subsidize the proposed line annually.
Much of the revenue would flow to Amtrak, which has designs on operating the service. But as American Experiment recently reported, Amtrak carries a lot of very costly baggage for state taxpayers.
There’s concern that Amtrak could take Minnesota taxpayers for an expensive ride. A sweetheart system established by Congress empowers Amtrak to raises millions of dollars off the backs of states like Minnesota by operating in-state passenger routes like NLX, according to a prominent passenger rail consultant.
“Regrettably, what has not yet been put on the table for the public’s right to know is a piece of congressional legislation called PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008),” said Mark E. Singer, who frequently criticizes Amtrak in the industry journal Railway Age.
Singer maintains the millions of dollars Amtrak would charge MnDOT to operate NLX would be tantamount to subsidizing the national rail line’s financially struggling commuter line in northeastern states at Minnesota taxpayers’ expense. Amtrak lost $168 million in 2018.
MnDOT planners have kept NLX chugging along since about 2010 through various environmental studies and other paperwork. But the lack of a bonding bill will stall their efforts in Washington at least temporarily.